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Review: Isamu Noguchi’s exhibition at the Barbican Center, London

Walking into Isamu Noguchi’s exhibition at the Barbican Center, London, there was a sense of familiarity, not because of my deep understanding of the artist’s work, but because of his iconic designs that influenced contemporary designers. Noguchi (1904 - 1988) was introduced as a sculptor, but given that his work is not limited to a small range of sculptures, I would say that his work goes beyond your typical sculptor as he famously worked on various materials, experimenting with techniques to give life to traditional and new pieces that can exist in a modern setting, and to my interest, his work that veers toward larger scales.

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Noguchi at the Barbican Centre, London. Image by Von Chua.

To limit yourself to a particular style may make you an expert of that particular viewpoint or school, but I do not wish to belong to any school. I am always learning, always discovering.

Isamu Noguchi

The breadth and range of materials that are shown in this exhibition tell me that Noguchi’s word is true in the way he approaches design. Chiselling, cutting, carving, or casting, Noguchi’s core ideas are surprisingly transferable in terms of medium and technique. And if he had the opportunity to experience the material developments and available techniques in recent years, I’m certain that stone, paper, wood, metal or clay will just be a small part of his work. On a side note, I was told that the work displayed is a different body of work compared to The Noguchi Museum in Queens, New York.

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Conservatory x Akari Cloud at the Barbican Conservatory, London. Image by Von Chua.

Amongst one of Noguchi’s iconic pieces are his Akari lamps; Akari signifies light, brightness and also refers to the idea of weightlessness that is present in Noguchi’s work, even when he was working with heavier and denser materials such as stone. In Japan, a country where Noguchi spent approximately 15 years of his life, most notably during his early formative years when walking along the streets in old parts of town in Japan, you’ll often find a warm glow of light from paper lanterns, a unique atmosphere. For paper lanterns, the town of Gifu is perhaps the most well-known for their making of them. In 1951, Noguchi visited the town of Gifu during his travels with support from the Bollingen Fellowship. The ingenuity of moulding paper which can then be repeatedly collapsed for flat packing is an amazing design innovation, and Noguchi began designing his version of paper lanterns, now known as the Akari lamp. Noguchi’s Akari lamps would be produced using traditional manufacturing methods. Today, the Akari lamp is celebrated within New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s (MOMA) permanent collection. One of Noguchi’s saying is “All that you require to start a home are a room, a tatami and Akari.”

The Akari lamps also received various nods from other designers, most prominently IKEA’s version of it; made of steel frames and rice paper, it comes at a much lower price point. If well-made inspired pieces can introduce qualities that improve a space or an end-user experience, as long as they are done with a respectful nod and acknowledgement, I see that it could be a vehicle in facilitating an appreciation of good design.

It was in the late 90s then when I was first exposed to Noguchi’s Herman Miller coffee tables; I remember seeing one coffee table again and again as I browsed through furniture shops in Kuala Lumpur. To my untrained eyes at that time, I took an interest in it as I thought that it looks modern yet classic at the same time. Although that coffee table wasn’t the one that went home with me, I can clearly remember its shape and design. The coffee table’s carefully considered design also means they are collapsible, which I only found out later when I began studying 20th century furniture. Flat packing is one of my great interests so again, I was impressed.

Like the Akari lamps, the Noguchi coffee table was iconic and popular that I’m now certain that some of the pieces that I saw in independent furniture shops were not originals but made in the style of Noguchi. The coffee table’s design was so well-received that furniture dealers knew they would sell and make a profit, so they stocked the pieces for the average furniture buyer. Furniture pieces making their way into mainstream design and the average household.

As Edwin Heathcote wrote in his article Isamu Noguchi at the Barbican - spotlight on a singular talent in the Financial Times:

Noguchi’s work was practical and elegant. Perhaps that was part of his problem: success in the world of commercial design can leach into perceptions of the art.

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Isamu Noguchi’s Rocking Stool. Image by Von Chua.

In recent months, I’ve had the opportunity to sit on furniture pieces by Isamu Noguchi and Charlotte Perriand in an exhibition setting, at the Barbican Centre and the Design Museum respectively. As with Noguchi, the idea that art can be utilised and touched, not a precious object to be placed on a pedestal; Noguchi did so during his career by working on over 20 art forms in public spaces. In a recording where Noguchi spoke about the Akari lamps, he talks about their fragility and short lifespan, and finding beauty in that impermanence. That rocking stool in the Noguchi exhibition - beautiful and engaging! There’s no better description and explanation than allowing one to develop their personal understanding by experiencing it first-hand.


If you have any questions or would like to share your recommendations of Noguchi’s work, please do not hesitate to contact me via email at von@vonxarchitects.com


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